William Shakespeare – Sonnet 33

With some wonderful imagery of landscape and nature, this sonnet projects the capricious Fate of men onto a picture of the sun’s influence over the earth. Shakespeare uses an allegory quite typical of his history plays in likening a man to the sun, and the language of the poem certainly contains echoes of that dramatic verse. Like a prism acting on a ray of light the final couplet reveals and scatters many potential meanings lying hidden in the preceding lines, with a daring pun on ‘heaven’s sun’ that probes at the nature of divine Providence. Continue reading


Sir Philip Sidney – Sonnet 47

This sonnet uses Petrarchan conventions in its expression of the rejected lover’s plight. It casts the speaker’s attempt to free himself from debilitating adoration in terms of emancipation and slavery, serfdom and political tyranny. The poem’s interest in human agency brings into focus the issue of predestination, with a religious struggle becoming almost as prominent as the amorous one which it supposedly analogues. Battle lines are drawn in the unmistakable volta separating octet and sestet, and the inner anguish of the speaker is conveyed in wonderfully dramatic language. The resolution is obscured in ambiguous syntax but yields to the lover and love’s representative in tyrannous, predestining religion.

The octet introduces the sonnet’s discussion of agency and the possibility of free choice with imagery of slavery. We can see in line 1 the speaker’s attempt to maintain a sense of his own free will – it is he that has ‘betrayed my liberty’, the lover hasn’t taken it. The illusory nature of this assertion is suggested by the way it jars with its own metaphor – slaves don’t ‘betray’ their freedom, it is seized from them. The other possibility offered is that the speaker is ‘born a slave’, making his devotion seem like an inheritance as out of control as genetics. This idea is beautifully expanded in line 4 where ‘becomes’ means ‘suits’ in the sense of an item of clothing. This implies that the speaker has some natural affinity with or suitability for bondage in adoration. There is also the suggestion that the addressed lover takes a sadistic aesthetic pleasure in seeing her suitor enchained – as one might admire and compliment someone wearing something ‘becoming’. This sense of a naturally imposed servitude is the dominant strain in the octet, furthered by the image of an ‘alms’ beggar, where love is linked with some natural physical impairment like blindness. Here the traditional Petrarchan anguish at the scornful rebuttals of the lover gains a new pointedness is likening it to a scornful refusal of poverty and need.

The speaker’s pain gains much of its drama in hyperbolic but ambiguous language. The ‘black beams’ of the slave image give a startling clarity to that image when taken as the bonds of imprisonment. They also combine with their ‘burning’ effect to suggest a demonic light that darkens rather than illuminates, or else a light that illuminates dark and forbidden knowledge like witchcraft does. The speaker is implicitly accusing his lover of holding him under a spell by foul means. This makes one sense of the volta’s imploring, ‘Virtue awake!’, as righteousness drives out demons, so the speaker’s conscience will free him from his lover’s she-devilry. More faintly the ‘black beams’ may resemble the crucifix of Jesus’ death, with the first 3 lines alluding to Calvary in the pained mark on the sufferer’s ‘side’, and the opening rhetorical question recalling ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ This implication becomes significant when the poem is considered for its discourse on religious differences.

Religion is only implicit in the octet, in the crucifixion allusion, the idea of ‘alms’ and meditations on agency which is strongly connected with predestination. The volta after line 8 changes this, as ‘Virtue’ is invoked and the style changes such that the Catholic-Protestant division is dramatized in the two parts of the poem. The speaker’s sudden new resolution to throw off the bonds of servanthood is emblemized by the Reformation and religious rebellion. The sparse, literal style of the sestet contrasts with the ornate splendour of the imagery in the octet – representing personal, simple Protestantism and grand Catholicism respectively. The ‘Catholic’ element of the octet is its visual representation of Calvary – symbolising the lavish decorative Catholic representations rejected by Protestantism. The distrust of ‘Beauty’, and the sparseness epitomized in line 10 are suggestive of reduced, more intimate Protestantism. That line, ‘I may, I must, I can, I will, I do’ is extraordinary for its emphatic-ness and its monosyllabic hollowness – as if the speaker isn’t entirely convinced by his own assertive independence. This speaks into both the relationship and the religion, where Protestantism also advocates this personal choice and faith – showing that the vehicle and the tenor are equally in focus by this point; this poem is as much about religion as it is about love. The resolution to these twin discourses is obscured in ambiguity by the final line, which seems to surrender to the lover, and so to the resplendent, inescapable beauty of Catholic tradition. However the syntax interrupts the normal meaning of ‘give the lie to’ such that we are left unsure whether the ‘heart’ or the ‘tongue’ is lying.

This sonnet uses the powerful rhetorical images of slavery and emancipation to frame the speaker’s relationship with his lover – depicted as the cruel but irresistible slave master. In its questioning of agency and the value of beauty the poem also has an important discourse on religion but refuses to give an emphatic solution to either question.

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 23

This sonnet employs a mixture of theatrical, financial and religious imagery to convey a complex feeling the speaker towards his lover. It stretches between the bashful embarrassment of the first two lines and the implicit threatening of the speaker looking ‘for recompense’. The sonnet’s basic meaning, that love is better communicated in verse than face to face, is just the canvas onto which these nuances of tone and attitude are painted.

The first two images used by the speaker are striking for their difference in mood – the first a simple shyness, the second a more complex blend of ferocity and tameness. The simile of the actor is naturally a favorite of Shakespeare’s, drawing from the much used Elizabethan idea of ‘theatrum mundi’, ‘All the world’s a stage’ etc. The simple likeness between the nervous actor forgetting his lines and the nervous suitor unable to find the right words therefore carries with it all the associations of the life as a play’ idea. This emphasizes the transience of life and humanity’s constant dissembling and is interested in ritual and ceremony. It conveys to the reader the fact that we ought to mistrust the eloquent rival suitor of line 12, just as we would in a play, and also promotes a kind of carpe diem attitude which clearly has a pertinence for the maiden being addressed. The essence of the simile – shyness in the speaker – is, however, simple in comparison with the image that follows. It is startling in its vagueness, ‘some fierce thing’ suggests an animal but clearly the intention is not to give us a clear mental picture. The point of contact between vehicle and tenor is the magnitude of feeling, but how strange that the emotion described here is not love but ‘rage’. As if the speaker was wary of sounding pitiable in the ‘actor’ simile, he here tries to assert a ferocity that rings hollow in its generality and lack of logic – why should ‘strength’s abundance’ weaken ‘his own heart’?

The ‘ceremony of love’ is both undermined and affirmed in the poem – where a contradictory attitude towards courtship itself is analogous to the speaker’s complex love for the maiden. The idea of ritual is closely linked to the theatrical imagery of lines 1 and 2, and therefore carries forward the idea of theatrum mundi which emphasizes the gap between superficial ceremony and genuine humanity. However, there is also a religious significance to the idea of ceremony which acts against the theatrical to affirm the role of ritual. The final couplet of the poem reveals that the speaker’s intention is not to invalidate ceremonial courtship but to reposition it from the physical to the visual: ‘silent love hath writ’ suggests a kind of scripture in poetry with love as the deity, and ‘hear with eyes’ sounds like the Biblical paradoxes beloved of Donne.

The seeming ugliness of the mixed metaphor in lines 7 and 8 implies a darker element within the speaker’s feeling. The incongruous images of ‘decay’,’burden’ and ‘might’ can all be accounted for individually. ‘Decay’ acts as a suppressed carpe diem motif, reminding the addressed lover that time is passing. The paradoxical ‘burden’ of ‘might’, when might would surely assist with a burden, is perhaps a continuation of the hollow assertion of strength in lines 3 and 4. The overall effect of the mixed metaphor, however, is to seem fragmentary and jagged. This signals an equally contradictory, equally ugly side to the speaker’s love, shown in the financial imagery of the poem. The pun on ‘rite’ in line 6 introduces the idea of ‘right’ or inheritance, suggesting the feeling of being owed something by the maiden the speaker is addressing. This is continued in ‘recompense’, implying through the image of commerce a lower, corrupted form of passion that works in opposition to the high, courtly ceremony operating explicitly in the poem. The speaker’s slight on his rival suitor, in whom the three ‘mores’s comically and subtly have us imagine a boorish, dull tone of voice, might suggest a reason for this darker current. Deep in the poem or in the imagined speaker’s mind, there is a subconscious, misogynistic ‘rage’ at the idea of the woman having two suitors, that gives rise to these suggestions of commoditized love with inevitable associations of prostitution.

The far dominant current of meaning in this sonnet presents a bashful, slightly comical speaker, light-heartedly dismissing his failures as a suitor by invoking the immortality of poetry and wittily ridiculing his rival. However, there is a small suggestion that his love isn’t as innocent as laudable as it seems, but rather based in a misogynistic notion of commoditized femininity.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Ask Me No More

This poem conveys a mood of deep melancholy and grief despite being reluctant to explicate a simple narrative or situation in which this passionate feeling is being felt. The poem can be seen as a plea to and for the speaker’s lover or friend on their death-bed, yet the picture is kept just out of focus, as if the exhortation of the title were intended to be extended to the reader as well. Through repetition we are made witness to the change in tone behind this phrase, from the resolution and coldness of the first stanza to a deep anguish and compassion in the last. The adapted sonnet form of the poem fits this dramatic shift in mood and the soul-searching that accompanies it.

A mood of bold defiance is conveyed in the opening lines with the imperative ‘Ask me no more’. The construction comparing tumultuous natural forces with the speaker’s maintained silence, ‘when have I answered thee?’, works on the idea that while the elements are subject to influence, the speaker’s resolution not to respond is unshakeable. The lines are given a Biblical cadence by the conditionals ‘may’ balanced against ‘but’ as in a psalm, as well as the idea of a ‘cloud’ reaching down from ‘heaven’. With the entrance of death into the poem at stanza 2 this will be reconfigured as an allusion to the death of Elijah or the ascension of Jesus, but here it simply demonstrates that storm clouds are shaped, and so influenced, by the land they pass over. The speaker’s exclamation ‘O too fond’ hangs unexplained in the stanza, but could apply to the speaker himself or the subject of the poem with a tone of admonishment. At this point in the poem the speaker might be rejecting an enamoured lover – he wants to distance and silence the person he is addressing.

The mood changes dramatically in the second stanza to one of grief and helplessness. The vulnerability and frailty conveyed by ‘what answer should I give?’ contrasts starkly with the firm coldness of stanza 1. ‘I love not the hollow cheek…’ attempts to explain this remoteness as a profound insight that sees beyond mere mortality, but the whole poem suddenly pivots on following word, ‘Yet’. This can be seen as the volta of this semi-sonnet, as the speaker allows the outpouring of his true emotion indicated by the exclamation mark at the end of the line. ‘O my friend’ counters ‘O too fond’ in the first stanza, turning that from a reproach towards the addressee, to a complex expression of self-admonishment, at having become too attached to the ‘hollow cheek and faded eye’ of a person that must inevitably die.

There is a bitter irony in the seeming command, ‘I will not have thee die!’, where the speaker tries desperately to imagine that it is in his hands to save the person he’s speaking to. The earlier mention of the moon that can ‘draw the sea’ is now retrospectively recast as an allusion to King Canute – the speaker’s command to death is as vain as trying to command the sea. A similar mismatch in tone can be found in the following line, where ‘lest I should bid thee live’ strikes us as a nonsensical threat. Just as the admonishing ‘too fond’ was turned back on the speaker, so the apparent threat of ‘lest’ towards the addressee implies a deep fear and consciousness of weakness in the speaker himself. It is not ‘lest I make the command to spare your life and it is enacted’, but rather ‘lest i make the command and it is not enacted, hence I am made palpably aware of my own frailty’. The final ‘Ask me no more’ has become, instead of an emphatic command, a fearful, compassionate plea.

Resignation and passionate love are the underpinning tones of the final stanza, as the speaker confronts the inevitability of death, ‘thy fate and mine are seal’d’. A return to the imagery of nature seen in stanza 1 shows the difference – where before the speaker held himself in contrast to the changes or nature, he now sees himself within it and subject to it, also recognises that although he ‘strove against the stream’, he was never actually outside the influence of mortality. Life’s passing is elevated beautifully in the image of the ‘great river’, and the passionate grief in ‘No more, dear love’ is touching. We see that his yielding’ refers both to the deathbed requests of his lover or friend, and to the ‘touch’ of death of itself, of which he now has a heightened consciousness.

This poem addresses the inner struggle to reconcile oneself with death and the fact of mortality. The speaker’s love for the person he addresses is movingly portrayed as breaking through the superficial coldness with which he attempts to evade the unalterable and inevitable approach of death.

Christina Rossetti – In an Artist’s Studio

A sonnet playfully interested in the subjectivity of beauty contrasted with the certainty of love, Rossetti addresses ideas linked to the proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The artist’s studio becomes a metaphor for the mind of the devoted lover, filled with pictures of his beloved upon which he ‘feeds’. For the speaker, this muse is regarded with fondness and humour, seen in turns as a capricious child and an elegant maternal figure. This fondness is coupled with a recognition that the pictures are not a true likeness, perhaps in the penultimate line that the subject of the portraits has lost some of her youthful charm. The final line emphasizes, however, that for the ‘artist’ she remains unchanged, and he as devoted as always.

The opening lines of the sonnet see the artist’s muse filling the studio, given a vitality by the fact that all the action is hers, not the viewers’, she ‘looks out’, ‘sits or walks or leans’. Like a nymph in a pastoral comedy, she can be playfully everywhere at once, while line 3 makes her sound like a small child playing hide and seek. Her youthfulness fondly emphasized here might also contain suggestions of vanity, with line 5 seeing her as a lavishly dressed queen. The antithesis between 5 and 6 captures one of the main ideas in the poem, that love can perceive people in any way it likes, just as the artist can paint his muse in different settings and poses. The speaker conveys their endorsement of love’s subjective perception, ‘neither more nor less’ suggests a completeness and perfection in the artist’s love – the ‘one meaning’ of the portraits. The speaker points to the muse’s faults with humour and sympathy, just to show pleasure in the fact that they are invisible to the artist.

For him the woman in the portrait appears almost as a maternal figure, and he shows her something of a child’s devotion. ‘Feeds’ suggests the dependence of a newborn – the speaker’s fond amusement is applied to the ‘artist’ lover as well as his beloved. The simplicity of diction in the poem generally and especially in the monosyllables of line 10 strengthens the sincerity conveyed in ‘true kind eyes’. It is hard to tell whether we see the subject now from the speaker’s perspective or the artist’s. Primarily the latter, but ambiguity suggests to us another of the poem’s themes – that by witnessing love we are influenced and softened to a more idealized perception of that love’s object. So the muse now becomes a celestial being, likened to the moon with light suggesting divinity. She is an authority for the artist where for the speaker she was a child, yet the two viewpoints seem to blend in the latter part of the poem.

The poem offers us glimpses beyond its own discourse in lines 12 and 13. Line 12 implies what 13 explicates, that in reality this woman’s life is more complex and fraught than inferred by the paintings. It implies a larger narrative occurring over time: if the muse was ever once as she is represented, ‘waiting’ and ‘sorrow’ have now made her ‘hope’ ‘dim’. It gives the poem for a moment a beautiful elegiac note, that seems about to continue in the final line by the anaphora. Instead it is countered with an emphatic – though ambiguous – affirmation of her idealized representation and its continued presence in the artist’s mind. The operative word is ‘fills’: in present tense, it returns to the image of her omnipresence that we had in the first lines. For the artist certainly, she remains unchanged.

There is an ambivalence about how we are to view the artist’s love: as idealized and hopeful or as delusional and foolish. The issue of true likeness is played on by the mention of the mirror in line 4. It offers an authentic, honest representation of the painting, the irony being that the painting itself is not a true likeness but an idealized one. One of the themes of the poem brought out here is the difficulty or impossibility of viewing a person objectively, free from the influencing perspectives of others. It is the mirror that ‘gave back all her loveliness’, but the way the mirror circumvents the ‘screens’ to reach the painting behind seems to suggest that on some level this is the most profound, honest representation – the one hidden from the view of casual judgements. The final lines foreground the difficulty of seeing someone ‘as she is’ as opposed to in a ‘dream’, if there is a difference at all.

The overall mood of the poem is playfully fond, generously portraying both artist and subject as devoted and worthy of devotion. However the sonnet also provokes questions about the validity of love’s viewpoint and of beauty which it cannot answer.